01 August 2009

"With a needle of dolphin"

This blog began under the arbor just over a year ago. Since then I have spent ten months in Athens, with a month in Nauplion, and weeks traveling in the Morea. Now I am back to the arbor again. We are cooking dinner early today, before the heat becomes too weighty, for Ben from Athens. We have had Athens temperatures here this week, higher than Athens -- in the high 90s rather than in Seattle's accustomed summer mid-70s. But there are breezes and we will eat under the arbor with the bunches of lavender drying, the grapes two weeks from ripening, the dolphins from Nauplion.

"A needle of dolphin" comes from Nikos Gatsos' wonderful Amorgos. In March, we made a pilgrimage to his home town of Asea, on a hillside off the road from Tripolis to Megalopolis. Gatsos left Asea as soon as he could. I have other friends -- Stavros, Nancy -- whose families left Asea, and driving up and down the hill on its rutted roads, we could see why. We had wanted at least to have a little wine in Asea for remembrance, but if there was a cafe, we missed it. Gatsos' remembrance of Asea's bleakness shows here and there in the rich imagery of his songs with real affection:

We who have survived will go out one evening
to sow grass in the bare lands
and before night takes us for good
we will make this land a shrine
and a cradle for children yet unborn
* * *

A little tree little house an empty sky
was our whole world was our whole life.

The pitcher on the windowsill

the well in the yard,

mother's courage father's counsel

This was our life and no other

small and humble but great

if we used to be bitter – hey!

With cold with snow
with a tear in the heart

bread divided small and damn little else

for earth the first mother, great thanks
This was our life and no other
small and humble but great

if we used to be bitter – hey!

The town has a memorial to Gatsos, an exceptionally stiff bust with the sides flattened as if to assure the viewer that this poet and compulsive gambler had finally been compressed into the respectability of a mortgage banker. Gatsos is dear to me, I have translated all his poems, and this bust is painful. Still, the bleakness of Asea had something to do with the most evocative lines of his poetry, possibly the most famous, and it was these lines that inevitably came to me as I watered the flagstones under the arbor.

It is enough if a plow is found,
a keen sickle in a cheerful hand

it is enough if a only little wheat ripens

a little wheat for the holiday
a little wine for remembrance
a little water
for the dust . . .

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